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Sermon illustrations

Ministry

By Their Work You have Been Threshed

In this excerpt from a sermon on the Lord’s Supper delivered by Augustine of Hippo to a group of Catechumens, (a Christian believer preparing for Baptism) the great bishop compares the process in which a seed becomes wheat, which ultimately becomes bread, to the process of becoming a baptized Christian. Augustine, following in the footsteps of Jesus, likens the process of sanctification to the threshing of wheat, with the separation of the wheat from the chaff.

Call to mind what this created thing [bread] once was in the field. How the earth brought it forth, the rain nourished it, and ripened it into an ear of wheat and then human labor brought it together on the threshing floor, threshed it, winnowed it, stored it up again, took it out, ground it, added water to it, baked it, and only at that moment made it into the form of a loaf.

Call to mind also: you did not exist, you were created, you were brought together to the threshing floor of the Lord by the labor of the oxen, that is, by those who announced the gospel, by their work you have been threshed.

Taken from Augustine of Hippo, Third Sermon: Sermon Denis 6, 1–3.

The Crucifixion of Ministry

In his book of the same name, seminary professor Andrew Purves describes the centrality of the cross as it relates to ministry:

When I speak at conferences about the crucifixion of ministry, ministers often approach me afterward and say, “You just nailed me!” It is an especially appropriate response to the idea of the crucifixion of ministry! I find, however, that seminary students rarely internalize and appropriate the lesson of the crucifixion of ministry and the theology behind it. Perhaps we have to be bashed about in ministry for while before we learn that the crucifixion of ministry is God’s gift.

Taken from The Crucifixion of Ministry by Andrew Purves Copyright (c) 2007 by Andrew Purves. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

Death and Life in Your Hands

Let’s call her Roberta; she was clearly near the end of a very long journey toward death’s door. Roberta’s cancer was a particularly nasty variety; by now it had eaten its way into most of her vital organs. The scarf that concealed her balding head bore silent testimony to the radical regimen of chemotherapy her body had endured in a vain attempt to stave off death. She extended a weak hand and a wan smile to greet her pastor. Her skin was pasty and cold to the touch, her breaths labored and shallow, exuding the sweetly sour smell of impending death. Though her eyes were losing their luster she gladly, eagerly heard the word of God, clinging to every syllable. “Would you like the Lord’s Supper?” I asked. “Oh yes,” she whispered in her weak little voice.

We launched into the timeless ritual of all the faithful, Roberta and me. The meal that nourishes every saint throughout earthly pilgrimage all lifelong culminates in the Marriage Supper of the Lamb in his kingdom. So that dreary winter afternoon, from a makeshift bedside table set squarely in the valley of the shadow of death, Roberta received a foretaste of that eternal feast still yet to come. “Our Lord Jesus Christ, on the night when He was betrayed,” I began, consecrating the tiny bit of bread I thought she might be able to swallow. Together with a miniature chalice with its little sip of wine, these would be for her the very flesh and blood of Jesus, the sign and seal of her redemption and the promised resurrection of her worn and dying body. In this sacred meal Roberta would obtain not merely forgiveness, but also life in all its fullness already here and now on the very brink of death.

But then a logistical problem: how commune someone who could no longer lift her head? Gingerly slipping onto the edge of her bed, I gently wrapped one arm beneath her frail bony shoulders and lifted her feather-light torso, cradling her like some skeletal baby. With my other hand I placed in her mouth the gifts her Savior died to bring: the bread of heaven here on earth, the cup of salvation poured out for all the world. “Take eat, the body of Christ, given for you,” I said. “Take drink, his blood shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins.” Then a parting blessing with the sign of the cross traced on her ashen forehead with my thumb: “The body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ strengthen and preserve you in body and in soul unto life everlasting. Depart in his peace.”

And she did. Not right then, but not many days later we gathered to give thanks for all our Lord’s many mercies, to celebrate his grace, and then to commit Roberta’s body to the ground; earth to earth, dust to dust, ashes to ashes, in the sure and certain hope of the resurrection unto eternal life which God grants all the baptized who die in faith in Christ, the Living One.

But that day there in Roberta’s apartment as I packed up my communion case and bade farewell to her family and friends keeping vigil with her, one of them said admiringly: “You had death in your hands here today.” I’m not sure how I responded then. But here’s what I should have said: “Maybe so, but I also had life in my hands to bring.”

That’s what it means to be a servant of Christ. You get your hands dirty among his earthly-and earthy-people. But you do it because you have life in your hands to give them.

Harold L. Senkbe, The Care of Souls: Cultivating a Pastor’s Heart, Lexham Press, 2019.

Discipleship at Ground Zero

One of the first Bible study groups I ever attended was at the Sigma Chi fraternity house at Cornell University. We were a hodgepodge of academics, sorority girls, fraternity boys, star athletes, mature believers (there must have been at least one), nonbelievers, and quasi-believers. I’ll put myself in that last category.The lacrosse player who introduced me to the group was a guy named Frank. Some time later, Frank shared with me his first experience with the group.

He had never attended a Bible study before, so he entered the second-story room sheepishly, and after surveying the one or two available seats in the room, he wormed his way between the three pretty coeds already squished together on the couch. The leader opened in prayer and instructed the group to turn to Ephesians 2 so they could read it together. Frank panicked. He had no idea where Ephesians was, or even what Ephesians was. So he turned to the woman next to him and coolly asked, “Where’s Ephesians?” She replied, “Next to Galatians.” Great. As if he knew where Galatians was! Frank was in desperate need of some direction. He had no idea where to start, and he needed someone to come alongside and help him understand.

Mindy Caliguire, STIR: Spiritual Transformation in Relationships, Zondervan.

Elijah Experiencing the Crucifixion of Ministry

In his important book, The Crucifixion of Ministry, seminary professor Andrew Purves sees a paradigm in Elijah’s ministry:

For many years I have taken Elijah’s story in 1 Kings 19 as a paradigm. Elijah has just pulled off a dramatic and successful confrontation with the prophets of Baal. But as soon as Jezebel finds out about it, Elijah takes off into the wilderness. He succumbs to fear and flight.

His ministry is in shambles.

He hides in a cave, reminding us of the depressed state of the discouraged minister. God tells him to go out onto the mountain. After the pyrotechnics of wind, earthquake and fire comes “a sound of sheer silence” (1 Kings 19:12). The unexplainable voice of God commands him to do the unthinkable: “Go, return” (1 Kings 19:15). Elijah experienced the crucifixion of ministry. Henceforth for Elijah ministry was possible only on the basis of the Word of God.

Taken from The Crucifixion of Ministry by Andrew Purves Copyright (c) 2007 by Andrew Purves. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

Experiencing Transference

In seminary I had read about the phenomenon of transference, whereby human beings sometimes transfer the feelings they have for one pivotal person in their lives to another pivotal person in their lives, especially when they are feeling vulnerable in a relationship. I had read about it, but I had never gotten a full dose of what it meant until I was the sole pastor of a church.

From Barbara Brown Taylor, Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith, Harper Collins. 

The Hidden Mystery of Jesus’ Ministry

In the midst of a busy schedule of activities—healing suffering people, casting out devils, responding to impatient disciples, traveling from town to town, and preaching from synagogue to synagogue—we find these quiet words: “In the morning, long before dawn, he got up and left the house, and went off to a lonely place and prayed there.”

The more I read this nearly silent sentence locked in between the loud words of action, the more I have the sense that the secret of Jesus’ ministry is hidden in that lonely place where he went to pray, early in the morning, long before dawn. . . . In the lonely place Jesus finds the courage to follow God’s will and not his own; to speak God’s words and not his own; to do God’s work and not his own. It is in the lonely place, where Jesus enters into intimacy with the Father, that his ministry is born.

Henri Nouwen, Spiritual Formation (New York: HarperOne, 2010), p. 20.

How To Practice the Presence of God with a Full Schedule

In his excellent book, An Unhurried Life, Alan Fadling shares the powerful story of the missionary Frank Laubach:

Frank Laubach, a missionary to the Philippines known for his Letters by a Modern Mystic, began to experiment with practicing God’s presence when he first arrived on the mission field. In those early months, Laubach described himself as “a lonesome man in a strange land.” He had a lot of time on his hands with which to give focused time to noticing God’s presence and work. After a while, the demands of ministry began to increase, and Laubach was with people every moment of every waking day. In that context, he wrote:

Either this new situation will crowd God out or I must take Him into it all. I must learn a continuous silent conversation of heart to heart with God while looking into other eyes and listening to other voices. If I decide to do this it is far more difficult than the thing I was doing before. Yet if this experiment is to have any value for busy people it must be worked under exactly these conditions of high pressure and throngs of people.

Taken from An Unhurried Life: Following Jesus’ Rhythms of Work and Rest by Alan Fadling Copyright (c) 2013 by Alan Fadling. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

“I Know Why You’re Here”

One summer, Johnny was ministering among the poor on a six-week urban project with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship in Los Angeles. Part of his assignment was to spend time in a convalescent home in the central part of the city. The elderly who are in need make up a segment of the poor who are easily overlooked in our society. Since many are tucked away in homes and hospices, they are not as visible as are those who are younger and on the streets.

This convalescent home was smelly, understaffed and poorly kept. Few residents had visitors. For a new guest arriving to serve the residents, it was very awkward. Some residents were mentally ill; some were not responsive at all. Others were even hostile. Members of Johnny’s team were struggling in the first few days with why they had been called to serve there. “Why are we here?” “This is depressing.” “We can’t do anything to help.” Such remarks began to be made openly.

One day, after Johnny had been there for about a week, an elderly woman slowly walked up to him in the hallway where he was standing. She drew close and pointed a finger at him. “I know why you’re here,” she said in an accusatory tone. She paused as my friend looked at her, wondering what this was about. Realizing he didn’t know what she meant, she went on. “I know why you’re here,” she said again. “You’re here because God wants us to know he hasn’t forgotten about us.

The woman turned and shuffled away. Johnny was stunned. Another team member was so moved she nearly cried on the spot. By the end of that summer, many of that team cried as they left the friends they had made, because in many of those relationships they had found something of the kingdom of God.

Kevin Blue, Practical Justice: Living Off-Center in a Self-Centered World, InterVarsity Press, 2006.

Masks and Ministry

The ancient Greek word for actor was hypocritēs (ὑποκρῐτής), which, at first, only implied someone who explained or interpreted something. But by New Testament times, it was more negative. It suggested someone who was untrustworthy. They pretended to be one thing while underneath being something else; they presented a good front to mask their reality. Of course, it needs to be recognized that this is not always negative. Temporary masks have their place, and nearly all of us make use of them. On occasion, it may even be right to use them. We really shouldn’t blurt out every thought that pops into our heads. That usually does more harm than good. Self-control is an important virtue, and so this type of mask is as much for others’ protection as anything else. At other times, it is neither appropriate nor necessary for those around us to be aware of every vulnerability or anxiety.

A mask is thus a form of protection, necessary to shield emotional wounds from being aggravated, or from being exposed at an inappropriate moment. It is an act, in some ways – ‘I’m fine,’ we say – a pretence that all is well. That is not a lie as such, but an act of self-defence. As one good friend remarked to me, ‘fine’ can actually serve as an acronym, standing for ‘Feelings Inside Not Expressed!’. It is an understandable mask, and if we never made use of it, we would probably never escape those after-church conversations that already seem interminable enough.

This mask is particularly important for those in Christian ministry. As we seek to pastor and love others, especially the vulnerable, there are times when we must swallow our pride or irritation, ignore our own needs or pressing concerns, for the sake of the urgent or important. We must show consistency and integrity, of course. But when I climb into a pulpit, I may be feeling 1,001 different things, most of which would be irrelevant, inappropriate or unhelpful to mention.

We have a duty to teach what is true and healthy, even if we might wish to be miles away. We act out of Christian duty, which invariably conflicts with our emotions and passions. This is true even in normal family life, where it might be necessary to park a discussion or argument because of something more pressing (such as friends coming for a meal). Unsurprisingly, it is necessary in upfront ministry as well. This is not avoidance, but finding the right moment (unless, of course, we don’t return to it).

Taken from When Darkness Seems My Closest Friend by Mark Meynell Copyright (c) 2018 by Mark Meynell. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

My Ministry or Christ’s Ministry?

In class I often use a show-and-tell example to illustrate the central point for the understanding of ministry. I invite a student to join me at the front of the class. I always pick a large, strongly built man. Let’s call him Bob. I have Bob stand in front of the class, perhaps in a posture of prayer with his hands raised and his face tilted upward, I provide a commentary that goes something like this:

God has called Bob to be his man in ministry. Bob is a pious man who heeds God’s call, goes to seminary, travels successfully through the ordination process is ordained and is sent off to be minister in Timbuktu Church. After he survives the initial bumps in the road, a number of realities begin to dawn on Bob. He finds it hard to be faithful in prayer and Bible study. It is some time since he read a decent book on theology.

He is always busy and always tired. Rarely does he expend himself at tasks he thought ministry would involve. Administrative and programmatic obligations overwhelm his time. Pastoral responsibilities get pushed aside. Conflicts with colleagues and parishioners demand his energies. He wearies at the kind of preparation he knows he is supposed to put into his sermons. In short, Bob has found that ministry is much fun anymore. He feels the burden and weariness of his call and almost nothing of the anticipated joy and fulfillment.

I then move alongside Bob and give him a mighty push which sends him stumbling across the room. The push is the displacement that I call the crucifixion of ministry. Then I, representing Jesus, stand in for him. I stand in his place and I have Jesus say,“I, not you, do the ministry that saves and heals, that gives hope and blesses, that forgives and promises new life.”

This is the kinetic paraphrase of Galatians 2:20, “I yet not I but Christ.” Speaking for Jesus, I say to Bob that I am sending the Holy Spirit to join him to me and my ministry. I tell Bob to come behind me, put his hands on my shoulders and rest against me, for I will do the ministry in his place. The primary work of ministry is not up to him anymore. Indeed, it never was. Hitched to Jesus, Bob is bidden to enjoy the ride.

Bob has to come to terms with his displacement. It is his crucifixion. The good news, but also the difficult news for any of us to hear, is that our ministries are not redemptive. Only Christ’s ministry is redemptive, and by the Holy Spirit we are joined to it. This means for us a process of ministerial metanoia—getting a new mind regarding ministry. It involves a reorientation of the theology and practice of ministry according to sharing in the continuing ministry of Jesus.

Taken from The Crucifixion of Ministry by Andrew Purves Copyright (c) 2007 by Andrew Purves. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

A Reservoir or a Canal?

The man who is wise, therefore, will see his life as more like a reservoir than a canal. The canal simultaneously pours out what it receives; the reservoir retains the water till it is filled, then discharges the overflow without loss to itself…Today there are many in the Church who act like canals, the reservoirs are far too rare…You too must learn to await this fullness before pouring out your gifts, do not try to be more generous than God.

Bernard of Clairvaux, On the Song of Songs

The Role of the Pastor

In the modern church, the role of the pastor is no longer clear cut. The pastor is expected to do a lot of things but is not sure which is “the one thing needful” (Luke 10:42), the essential duty. The recovery of spiritual direction in recent years has once again drawn the attention to the main focus of pastoral care, namely, to help Christians develop their prayer life and discover the will of God. For much of the history of the church, the work of the pastor was quite unambiguous: the “cure of souls.” The shepherd is to help the sheep assimilate and live out the spiritual life. In short, the pastor is essentially a spiritual theologian and a guide to godliness. It is this work and nothing else that gives the pastoral vocation its distinguishing mark.

Simon Chan, Spiritual Theology: A Systematic Study of the Christian Life, InterVarsity Press.

Struggling with Vision

Right around six years into what would become a thirty-three-year ministry at Bethlehem Baptist Church, John Piper was stuck. His board wanted to enact some significant changes and he felt like he had no direction whatsoever. Here is a journal entry from that time:

November 6, 1986: The church is looking for a vision for the future—and I do not have it. The one vision that the staff zeroed in on during our retreat Monday and Tuesday of this week (namely, building a sanctuary) is so unattractive to me today that I do not see how I could provide the leadership and inspiration for it. Does this mean that my time at Bethlehem is over?

Does it mean that there is a radical alternative unforeseen? Does it mean that I am simply in the pits today and unable to feel the beauty and power and joy and fruitfulness of an expanded facility and ministry? O Lord, have mercy on me. I am so discouraged. I am so blank. I feel like there are opponents on every hand, even when I know that most of my people are for me. I am so blind to the future of the church…I must preach on Sunday, and I can scarcely lift my head.

Eventually, Piper and his team would develop a renewed vision for their church. This vision gave them the clarity they needed to pursue not only continue, but to flourish as a church. But it was not something that came immediately, or without struggle. It required the long, disciplined work of discerning, in community, the vision that God had for their church.

Stuart Strachan Jr., Source Material from John Piper, “How I Almost Quit,” desiringGod.

This-Sidedness and Other-Sidedness

In his excellent little book, A Testament of Devotion, written almost a hundred years ago, Thomas Kelly describes the tension that all ministries must live in; the focus on this world or the world-to-come. Each are essential for the whole gospel to be preached and lived:

German theology of a century ago emphasized a useful distinction between This-sidedness and Other-sidedness, or Here and Yonder. The church used to be chiefly concerned with Yonder, it was oriented toward the world beyond, and was little concerned with this world and its sorrows and hungers.

Because the sincere workingman, who suffered under economic privations, called out for bread, for wholewheat-flour bread, the church of that day replied, “You’re worldly-minded, you’re crass, you’re materialistic, you’re oriented toward the Here. You ought to seek the heavenly, the eternal, the Yonder.”

But the workingman wasn’t materialistic, he was hungry; and Marxian socialism promised him just the temporal bread he needed, whereas the church had rebuked him for not hungering for the eternal Bread.

All this is now changed. We are in an era of This-sidedness, with a passionate anxiety about economics and political organization. And the church itself has largely gone “this-sided,” and large areas of the Society of Friends (the Quakers) seem to be predominantly concerned with this world, with time, and with the temporal order. And the test of the worthwhileness of any experience of Eternity has become: “Does it change things in time? If so, let us keep it, if not, let us discard it.”

Thomas Kelly, A Testament of Devotion, Harper & Bros., 1941.

The Unbusy Pastor

The adjective busy set as a modifier to pastor should sound to our ears like adulterous to characterize a wife, or embezzling to describe a banker. It is an outrageous scandal, a blasphemous affront. Hilary of Tours diagnosed pastoral busyness as “irreligiosa solicitudo pro Deo,” a blasphemous anxiety to do God’s work for him.

I (and most pastors, I believe) become busy for two reasons; both reasons are ignoble. I am busy because I am vain. I want to appear important. Significant. What better way than to be busy? The incredible hours, the crowded schedule, and the heavy demands on my time are proof to myself-and to all who will notice-that I am important If I go into a doctor’s office and find there’s no one waiting, and see through a half-open door the doctor reading a book, I wonder if he’s any good. A good doctor will have people lined up waiting to see him; a good doctor will not have time to read a book, even if it’s a very good book. Although I grumble about waiting my turn in a busy doctor’s office, I am also impressed with his importance.

The other reason I become busy is that I am lazy. I indolently let other people decide what I will do instead of resolutely deciding myself. I let people who do not understand the work of the pastor write the agenda for my day’s work because I am too slipshod to write it myself. But these people don’t know what a pastor is supposed to do. The pastor is a shadow figure in their minds, a marginal person vaguely connected with matters of God and good will. Anything remotely religious or somehow well-intentioned can be properly assigned to the pastor.

It was a favorite theme of C. S. Lewis that only lazy people work overhard. By lazily abdicating the essential work of deciding and directing, establishing values and setting goals, other people do it for us; then we find ourselves frantically, at the last minute, trying to satisfy a half dozen different demands on our time, none of which is essential to our vocation, to stave off the disaster of disappointing someone.

Eugene Peterson, first published in 1981 by Leadership Journal.

“What is God Looking For?”

Pastor John Piper warns of attempting to “do great things for God”:

The difference between Uncle Sam and Jesus Christ is that Uncle Sam won’t enlist you unless you are healthy and Jesus won’t enlist you unless you are sick. What is God looking for in the world? Assistants? No. The gospel is not a help wanted ad. It is a help available ad. God is not looking for people to work for him but people who let him work mightily in and through them.

John Piper, Brothers We Are Not Professionals, B&H Books, p. 39.

The Witness of Father Damien

Father Damien was a priest who became famous for his willingness to serve lepers.  He moved to Kalawao, a village on the island of Molokai in Hawaii that had been quarantined to serve as a leper colony.  For sixteen years he lived in their midst.  He learned to speak their language.  He bandaged their wounds, embraced the bodies no one else would touch, preached to hearts that would otherwise have been left alone.  He organized schools, bands, and choirs.  He built homes so that the lepers could have shelter.  He built two thousand coffins by hand so that when they died, they could be buried with dignity.  Slowly, it was said, Kalawao became a place to live rather than a place to die, for Father Damien offered hope.

Father Damien was not careful about keeping his distance.  He did nothing to separate himself from his people.  He dipped his fingers in the poi bowl along with the patients.  He shared his pipe.  He did not always wash his hands after bandaging open sores.  He got close.  For this the people loved him.

Then one day he stood up and began his sermon with two words: “We lepers. …”

Now he wasn’t just helping them.  Now he was one of them.  From this day forward he wasn’t just on their island; he was in their skin.  First he had chosen to live as they lived; now he would die as they died.  Now they were in it together.

One day God came to earth and began his message: “We lepers. …”  Now he wasn’t just helping us.  Now he was one of us.  Now he was in our skin.  Now we were in it together.

Taken from John Ortberg All the Places to Go . . . How Will You Know?: God Has Placed before You an Open Door.  What Will You Do?, Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. 

See also illustrations on PastorsService

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